WILLIS MICHAEL (FNAWCC 1894-1969)
THE NATIONAL HERITAGE MUSEUM
by Bob Frishman
NAWCC Bulletin, August, 2006, page 387
A well-known secret about major museums is that they have far more items in dark storerooms than on display in public galleries. Some permanent-collection items are rotated through exhibits, but understandably, many others are never seen except by occasional scholars.
One such storeroom, full of clocks, is beneath the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts. The museum was built as a Bicentennial gift to our nation by the Scottish Rite Masons of the Northern Jurisdiction of the United States. Most of its 200-plus clocks and watches were part of the collection of Willis R. Michael, second president of the NAWCC from 1949 to 1951. Since the museum opened in 1975 on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, it has displayed only small groups of his timepieces and has mounted just a few larger horological shows. Two public exhibits of the Michael clocks, in 1977 and 1982, were noted by The Magazine Antiques1, and another show will open in 2007.
I learned of these treasures ten years ago from Tom Leavitt, director of the museum at the time. Chapter 8 funded a summer intern there in 1996 to compile a detailed listing of the museum’s horological holdings. The resulting printout, which lists 148 clocks and 52 watches, is in our NAWCC library. I also worked with Tom to organize our chapter’s 7th Annual Educational Symposium at the museum on September 28th of that year. In addition to hearing from speakers including the late Ward Francillon, the 60 attendees were able to tour the storage areas and examine all the clocks and watches. Another Chapter 8 symposium, this one focusing exclusively on the Michael clock collection, is scheduled for Saturday, September 30, 2006.
Willis R. Michael, born in 1894, died in 1969 without ever seeing the National Heritage Museum . But "Brother" Michael was a nationally-prominent 33rd-degree Mason who held several leadership positions, culminating as Grand Sovereign of the Grand Imperial Council, Empire of the East. This probably explains why his widow, Ruth B. Michael, donated a significant part of his collection to the new Masonic museum. (Details of the gift are confidential. In June 1993, even more of his collection, 752 lots, was sold by York Town Auctions in York, Pennsylvania2).
Willis Michael in his home workshop.
(NAWCC Bulletin No. 24, July 1948)
Trained as a tool-and-die maker, he worked as a young man on the development of the Dudley Masonic watch and was owner-operator of successful specialized tool and die companies in York, Pennsylvania. In 1937, Michael’s interest in clocks began when he purchased a grandfather clock in Lancaster . The collection grew to include more than 30 tallcase clocks, 5 organ clocks and enough other rarities to become a 14-room private museum in his home in Red Lion, Pennsylvania . The 1948 York Dispatch 3 printed a series of articles about him and his "400 Clocks and 225 Watches", and these articles were republished by Michael as a 28-page booklet.
A May 1948 Bulletin article devotes three pages to his collection, including an image of his workshop and another of him talking with Charles and John Bowman4. The December 1949 Bulletin reports on him hosting a large dinner meeting of York Chapter No.7 and supplies a photograph of one large room of his house-museum5. Hobbies Magazine in 1952 and 1953 featured a multipart series, "A Visit to a Scientific Wonderland," about his then-famous collection which had expanded to music boxes, antique tools, sundials and automata. In the June, 1953 Bulletin he was referred to as "the dean of American collectors."6 An early founder of the NAWCC, membership number 197, he was eulogized by D.H. Shaffer in the Bulletin of August, 1969.7
In May and June of 2002, I again visited those basement storerooms to research this article and to encourage more appreciation and displays of this important collection. I brought well-known clock auctioneer Bob Schmitt to help with the mission. During those two days, accompanied by museum officials, we worked our way down the random rows and shelves of clocks, stopping to examine and discuss as many as we could. (The watches in the collection await another expert visit.) Following are descriptions of some of the collection’s highlights which demonstrate its breadth and quality.
We started with tallcase clocks. One by George Hoff of Lancaster , Pennsylvania , c.1780, may be the collector's first acquisition. Michael's brief biography in the York Town auction catalogue indicates that his initial purchase was a Hoff tallcase clock, but he may have had others. This one had a mahogany case of typical Pennsylvania proportions, but the 3-weight movement was unusual with inline winding arbors, quarter striking (not Westminster ) on a nest of four bells and a calendar pointer along with a center sweep-seconds hand.
Two tallcase clocks by John Fisher, Yorktown, Pennsylvania, also had center-seconds and rolling moons, and they were important to this story for another reason. Michael dedicated his home’s clock museum to the memory of that town's early clockmaker, engraver, portrait painter and organ builder who died in 1808. During the Chapter 7 dinner at Michael’s home, a direct descendant of Fisher presented a detailed account of her ancestor’s life and work.
Another Pennsylvania tallcase clock, in nice original condition, was made by Jonathan Jessop. He was one of York ' s outstanding clockmakers as well as the teacher of Phineas Davis, who went on to help invent the first coal-burning locomotive. The clock, with white dial and rolling moon, probably predates 1817 when his buildings were carried away in a flood.
Perhaps most importantly, there was a tallcase by the famous David Rittenhouse, Norristown , Pennsylvania . While only a two-train bell-strike movement, it had a rolling moon and a more advanced calendar indicating day-of-the-week as well as date.
There were several other tallcase clocks by makers such as Jacob Hoffstedder, Jacob Custer, Charles Cooper, Silas Hoadley, Jacob Gorgas, and Daniel Rose. (In 2001, I serviced two others, a brass-dial John Breakenrig, Edinburgh and a Martin Shreiner, Lancaster, white dial, and set them up in an adjacent Masonic office building.)
There also was a large Dutch tallcase by Johannes Elias of Amsterdam . Circa 1670, it boasted four rocking ships and rocking cherub, a calendar with figures for each month, and an alarm. An imposing German "Jupiter" organ clock by T. Hilzinger, Meakwen, towered above the others. Six soldiers on its dial would sway as the tune played. In its shadow was a dwarf clock by Noah Ranlet, Gilmington , New Hampshire , nearly all original with a kidney-shape dial, early movement and large alarm bell on top.
We moved to the shelves of smaller clocks. An English skeleton clock (Fig.1) signed R.A. Mosely, Boston , was recognized as the excellent work of James Conliff, Liverpool . Another skeleton clock, an unsigned triple-fusee with a nest of bells, probably was a sample of Willis Michael’s machine skills and clockmaking abilities. While large and impressive, It appeared to have been converted from a bracket clock because of features which would not appear in a period factory-made piece. On top was a chronometer escapement with helical hairspring, the dial and spring barrels were unpierced, the plate screws had no collets, and the overall finish level was not quite up to expected standards.
A Birge & Fuller wagon-spring steeple-on-steeple (Fig.2) was among a few others of this same style, and was beside an even rarer Asa Munger, Auburn New York, 8-day pillar-and-scrolll. Next was a J.C.Brown, Bristol , wall acorn clock (Fig.3), an Ansonia bouncing doll, a good early Briggs Rotary, and a Kroeber noiseless rotary (Fig.4).
Figure 1. James Conliff English skeleton clock
signed R.A. Mosely, Boston.
Figure 2. Birge & Fuller wagon-spring steeple-on-steeple.
Figure 3. J.C. Brown acorn wall clock.
Figure 4. Kroeber noiseless rotary clock.
A German hexagonal six-legged table clock, made in the mid 1600's by Frauenpries, had a fire-gilt brass case with little glazed windows and a complete grand-sonnerie movement with alarm, pull repeat, and original balance cock. Another early piece was a coach watch signed Erb in Wien, likely from around 1750, with strike and alarm, in a pierced brass case, It had a large fusee and chain, and a good porcelain dial. Beyond was a Laport Hubbell globe clock, much rarer than the Timby version, with a balance wheel movement to rotate the globe.
An imposing French bracket clock by Henri de Martinot, Louis XIV style from around 1700, was inlaid with brass and tortoiseshell and had many complications and a finely engraved dial. Martinet was chief clockmaker to the Sun King and had lodgings in the Louvre. Another smaller bracket clock was Japanese, c.1825, with twin foliots to accommodate their old-system hours of varying lengths.
Out of the storeroom and upstairs in a large public display case was a Simon Willard lighthouse clock (Fig.5). Perhaps the most important clock, and certainly the most valuable, it often is on display in the museum's "Made in Massachusetts" exhibit. The clock’s porcelain dial had Simon Willard's name fired into it. In that same public case was a fine Aaron Willard shelf clock with an old oxidized silver mirror, and a George Hatch banjo with wooden sidearms and bezel.
These examples cover only a small part of what Willis Michael collected and what the National Heritage Museum now owns. Because the museum has photographs of just a portion of the collection, and only a small number of pictures can accompany this text, a visit to Lexington is the only way to truly appreciate these timepieces. The research library contains his donated horological books and pamphlets; these, too, are available for study on site.
While we understand that the museum has a far broader mission than our own facility in Columbia, we hope that it will continue to honor the memory and interests of our second national president, their Brother Willis Michael. Specifically, we hope for on-line availability of all descriptions and photos, as well as for enhanced exhibitions. And finally, we hope that many of our fellow NAWCC members will take the time and opportunity to view these horological gems.
1. Magazine Antiques, August, 1977, p.184; June 1981, p.1274.
2. York Town Auction, Inc., June 22-23, 1993, "The Willis R. Michael Collection of Watches, Clocks, Scientific Instruments, Music Boxes and Automata"
3. York Dispatch, April 10, 1948, "Red Lion Man's Collection Spans 400-Year Period in Clockmaking.
4. NAWCC Bulletin, May, 1948, p.462-464.
5. NAWCC Bulletin, December, 1949, p.24-25.
6. NAWCC Bulletin, June, 1953, p.407.
7. NAWCC Bulletin, August, 1969, p.979.
Figure 5. Simon Willard lighthouse clock.
Bob Schmitt deserves much of the credit for the highlights and descriptions, thanks to his sharp eyes, decades of experience, and powers of description familiar from his auction catalogues. I also thank Maureen Harper, Collections Manager at the National Heritage Museum, who has given many hours of her time to this project. Finally, my wife Jeanne Schinto, the true writer of the family and author of many articles on horology, art and antiques, edited this article into a readable form.
ABOUT THE MUSEUM
The National Heritage Museum is located at 33 Marrett Road in historic Lexington, MA. It is open every day, with free admission and parking. Contact the Museum by phone at 781-861-6559 or see their website at www.nationalheritagemuseum.org. To view the clocks in storage, special permission and appointments are required.